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how to save a dying plant

It may have started out as a cool new desk accessory or a housewarming gift, but that houseplant has come to mean something special to you. It adds color, improves air quality, and brings a bit of nature into your home. That is, until the day you realize that something is going wrong with your little green friend. Perhaps the leaves are wilted or it’s looking a little pale and powdery. In most cases, you can save a dying plant and bring it back to full, thriving health. It’s all a matter of figuring out what’s wrong, taking steps to correct it, and making sure that it doesn’t happen again. Here’s how to save a dying plant and keep it healthy in the future.

Diagnose the Problem

The first step in reviving a dying plant is to correctly diagnose the problem. Some telltale symptoms can help you figure out what’s going on with your houseplant and point you in the correct direction to help it heal. After you’ve diagnosed the issue, you can take these steps to revive your plant and keep it healthy in the future.

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How to Save an Overwatered Plant

Overwatering is one of the most common plant problems. Some new plant owners think there’s no ill that a little extra water can’t cure, however they are wrong. If your plants are showing any of these symptoms, the problem could be too much water:

  • wilting leaves with wet soil
  • brown leaves
  • yellow leaves
  •  leaves falling off
  • root rot

Stick the tip of your finger into the soil to about the depth of the first knuckle. If the soil feels moist, it doesn’t need more water.

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What to Do:

  1. Move the plant to a shady area. That may feel counter-intuitive, but it’s important. Plants with damaged roots can’t take up the water that the leaves need, and plants in shade use less water, so you want to move the plants to where they’ll need less water.
  2. Check the drainage holes to make sure the plant is draining well. If the pot doesn’t have drainage holes — or if they’re insufficient — add more holes.
  3. Create more air space around the roots by gently tilting the plant and tapping the pot on the side until the root ball moves away from the sides. Trim away damaged leaves and stems so there is less stress on the plant and it can focus on healing the roots.
  4. Repot the plant into a larger pot if necessary. Not only will this give the roots a fresh start with clean, dry soil, but it will also allow you to check the roots for rot and trim away damaged roots and stems.
  5. If you see fungus on the pot or soil, consider treatment with a broad-spectrum fungicide.
  6. Water only when the soil is dry.
  7. Plant recovery might take a week or two. At that point, move it back to its accustomed spot and pay attention to your watering schedule.
  8. If the leaves look parched or wilted between watering, then try giving them a light mist to perk them up.

How to Save an Under-watered Plant

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Under-watered plants may look droopy and dry, however they may be dropping leaves also. If that sounds a little too much like the symptoms of overwatering, the difference is this: The leaves are not usually discolored and the soil is dry. The problem may not be how often you’re watering, but how. If you’ve been underwatering, you need to rehydrate the plant and then give it careful watering after it recovers.

What to Do:

  1. Place the plant into a bucket or sink full of water and pour water slowly onto the top of the soil until the water has gone through the pot and started to pool in the sink or bowl. Let it soak for at least half an hour. Just drenching it won’t work—the soil is too dry to retain much water. A good soak allows the soil and the roots to absorb the water they need.
  2. Set it in a spot out of direct sunlight and allow it to drain until no more water runs out.
  3. When the plant’s soil becomes dry again, add water gently and evenly until you notice excess water emerging into the saucer beneath the pot. Pour out excess water and place the pot back in the saucer. You can also try a self-watering pot or automatic watering solution to make it easier.

Not Enough or Too Much Light

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The second biggest problem that affects houseplants is light. Too much or too little sunlight will cause problems.

Symptoms of too much sun include:

  •     scorched, discolored leaves;
  •     dry, parched soil; and
  •     brown, curling edges on leaves.

What to Do:

  1. Trim away dead leaves and foliage.
  2. Soak the plant as described above.
  3. Move the plant out of direct sunlight.
  4. Consider putting the pot on a humidifier tray — a layer of river stones in a tray of water. It will increase the humidity around the plant without soaking the roots.
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Symptoms of not enough sun include:

  • spindly or leggy stems/branches;
  • small, pale leaves; and
  • dropping leaves.

What to Do:

  1. Move the plant to a sunnier location.
  2. Increase the amount of sunlight that reaches the plant by cleaning or dusting the window.
  3. Add artificial light to boost the amount of light the plant receives.

Feed Me, Seymour

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When a plant grows outdoors in the ground, its source of nutrients is essentially infinite. The roots can just keep stretching out to find new soil with more nutrients. That’s not an option for a plant confined to a pot in your home. It’s up to you to feed your houseplant, and that means knowing what it needs and when to apply it. A plant that needs fertilizer will stop thriving and growing; one that has received too much fertilizer may look burned or start falling apart.

What to Do:

Research the type of fertilizer your plant needs and follow the package directions to use it appropriately. However, opt for slow-release crystals or pellets to prevent over-fertilizing.

Recap: Top Tips in One Spot

A few plant-saving supplies:

You can’t save every plant, but most will respond to better care. If you choose plants for your home based on available light and other conditions, you’ll be less likely to run into these problems. If you do, these steps can help reverse the damage and put your plants on the road to recovery.

Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.


Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness, and lifestyle topics.

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